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What drives U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
The "Israel lobby" controversy

May 19, 2006 | Page 6

ERIC RUDER looks at the debate among liberals and radicals about the impact of the "pro-Israel lobby" on U.S. foreign policy.

IN MARCH, two academics touched off a firestorm of debate with a paper called "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy."

In it, they argued that a powerful group of pro-Israel lobbyists made up of Washington insiders has become so dominant that U.S. foreign policy officials pursue Israel's strategic interests over and above the strategic interests of the U.S. itself.

The two authors of the paper--John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, academic dean at the prestigious Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University--are highly respected within mainstream circles.

But almost immediately, they came under fierce attack from Israel's defenders.

Eliot Cohen, professor of international studies at Johns Hopkins University, used the pages of the Washington Post as a bully pulpit for his diatribe against Mearsheimer and Walt. Cohen called the article "inept" and "kooky," and claimed that it recycled standard anti-Semitic themes--"obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews"; accusations of "disloyalty, subversion or treachery"; and charges of "participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments."

The campaign of criticism led Harvard University's Kennedy School to remove its logo from the article and strengthen its disclaimer that the paper only reflected the views of the authors. In the midst of the furor over the article, Walt announced that he would end his tenure as dean in June, but Harvard officials denied the move was related to the backlash against the article.

Ironically, the uproar proved the existence of the Israel lobby that critics of Mearsheimer and Walt are trying to deny--and underscored the unwillingness of Israel's apologists to allow even faint criticism of this lobby.

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BUT DEFENDING Mearsheimer and Walt's description of the Israel lobby from Israel boosters is less critical than pointing out what's wrong with other points they make.

That's because their argument that Israel has become a "strategic liability" to the U.S. is a view shared by some in the pro-Palestinian movement.

Mearsheimer and Walt are on firm ground when they outline the many channels employed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel organizations to influence elected officials, government policy and public opinion.

"The lobby pursues two broad strategies," write the authors. "First, it wields its significant influence in Washington, pressuring both Congress and the executive branch. Whatever an individual lawmaker or policymaker's own views may be, the lobby tries to make supporting Israel the 'smart' choice. Second, it strives to ensure that public discourse portrays Israel in a positive light, by repeating myths about its founding and by promoting its point of view in policy debates. The goal is to prevent critical comments from getting a fair hearing in the political arena."

There's nothing particularly insightful in these observations, which would apply to every effective lobby in Washington--from the farm lobby to the American Association of Retired Persons.

But according to Mearsheimer and Walt, the Israel lobby is so good at what it does that its influence has swamped any rational assessment of actual U.S. interests. "Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country--in this case, Israel--are essentially identical," they argue.

In their view, the U.S. receives very little in exchange for the $3 billion it annually gives to Israel in direct aid and the unswerving diplomatic support the U.S. provides to Israel. They claim that the U.S. loses out in the deal because its reputation in the Arab world is tarnished by its association with Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights.

But Mearsheimer and Walt don't stop there. They assert that the influence of the Israel lobby was a "critical" reason for the U.S. war on Iraq. "Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim," they write. "Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure."

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IN REALITY, Mearsheimer and Walt have the causal connection between U.S. support for Israel and the Israel lobby backwards. Support for Israel as a centerpiece of U.S. strategy to dominate the oil-rich Middle East largely explains the power and influence of the Israel lobby, not the other way around.

U.S. support for Israel took on central importance in 1967--at a time when there was no Israel lobby and when most American Jews in fact had little interest in Israel. That year was when Israel proved its effectiveness as an ally--by waging war on Egypt and neutralizing the growing influence of secular Arab nationalism.

In subsequent years, Israel could be relied on to strike out at Arab regimes that fell afoul of Washington (such as its 1981 destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor) and to serve as a conduit for sending arms to forces that the U.S. was legally barred from or too embarrassed to support directly (such as apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia and the Nicaraguan contras).

Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper once compared the U.S. to the Godfather, and Israel to the "Godfather's messenger"--since Israel "undertakes the dirty work of the Godfather, who always tries to appear to be the owner of some large, respectable business."

The danger in Mearsheimer and Walt's reversal of cause and effect is the confusion that follows from saying, in the words of Columbia University professor Joseph Massad, that "absent the pro-Israel lobby, America would at worst no longer contribute to the oppression of Arabs and Palestinians, and at best would be the Arabs' and the Palestinians' best ally and friend.

"What makes this argument persuasive and effective to Arabs? Indeed, why are its claims constantly brandished by Washington's Arab friends to Arab and American audiences as a persuasive argument? I contend that the attraction of this argument is that it exonerates the United States' government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves for its policies in the Arab world and gives false hope to many Arabs and Palestinians who wish America would be on their side, instead of on the side of their enemies."

In denying the role of Middle East oil in the U.S. decision to wage war on Iraq, Mearsheimer and Walt echo both the Bush administration as well as some in the Israel lobby.

Oil "has barely been on the administration's horizon in considering Iraq policy," said Patrick Clawson, an oil and policy analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in 2003.

But in 1999, Clawson--whose think tank was founded by a former deputy director of research at AIPAC--Clawson was reading from a different script at a Capitol Hill forum on a post-Saddam Iraq. "U.S. oil companies would have an opportunity to make significant profits," he said. "We should not be embarrassed about the commercial advantages that would come from a reintegration of Iraq into the world economy."

But even if oil played a bigger part in the decision to go to war, Mearsheimer and Walt believe they have an airtight argument about why Israel serves no useful purpose for the U.S. During the 1991 and 2003 wars on Iraq, far from drawing on Israel's regional military superiority to help subdue Saddam Hussein, the U.S. had to restrain Israel from becoming involved militarily.

However, to conclude from this, as Mearsheimer and Walt do, that Israel is therefore a "strategic liability" is absurd. The U.S. relies on its strategic relationship with Israel first and foremost, but it also has firm supporters among several other Middle Eastern countries--most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others.

The very existence of Israel--and its stability as a U.S. foothold in the region--greatly enhances the ability of the U.S. to force Arab regimes to make agreements at the negotiating table. After all, if Israel has already assured the U.S. a secure grip on the region, why shouldn't Arab leaders derive benefits from making their own deals with the U.S.?

If the U.S. can wage war on Iraq with the help of its Arab allies, then the U.S. is happy to restrain Israel. But the U.S. knows that it's dangerous to become too dependent on any given Middle Eastern country, because the populations of those countries resent their own leaders' collaboration with the U.S. Israel's population, on the other hand, overwhelmingly supports the U.S., making Israel a far more predictable and stable ally.

And in any case, even if the U.S. had to restrain Israel during its war on Iraq, Israel nevertheless can act on behalf of the U.S. when the U.S. wants it to--such as Israel's 2003 air strikes deep in Syrian territory.

Though the billions that the U.S. gives to Israel seem exorbitant, the U.S. spends far more annually to maintain its military bases throughout the Arab world, not to mention its many military installations throughout Europe and Asia. In that sense, U.S. support of Israel is a bargain--and the Israel lobby serves the useful purpose of protecting the U.S. government's investment.

But even without an Israel lobby, the U.S. would support Israel, just as it supports Colombia and Egypt--the second- and third-largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid--even though those countries don't have lobbies with anything near the clout of the Israel lobby.

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IT SHOULDN'T come as a surprise that liberal critics of U.S. foreign policy, like Mearsheimer and Walt, would conclude that lobbying has blown U.S. war planning off course.

But the truth is that the misadventures of U.S. imperialism can't be corrected by curtailing the influence of a "lobby." The U.S. has opposed national liberation movements and backed nasty dictatorships all over the world, not just in the Middle East.

And as Middle East expert Stephen Zunes points out, "There are far more powerful interests that have a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region than does AIPAC--such as the oil companies, the arms industry and other special interests whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races."

There are no shortcuts in the fight for justice for Palestinians, for Iraqis and for all peoples oppressed by U.S. imperialism. An anti-imperialist movement--built right here in the belly of the beast--is the essential ingredient for bringing an end to U.S. crimes around the world.

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